Stanford University
Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, California. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

If only for their sheer size, measured in numbers 13 digits long, the two massive spending bills now wending their way through Congress are likely, if passed in anything like their present form, to revamp whole areas of our national life. Not the least of these areas is higher education. 

Check out the complete 2021 Washington Monthly rankings here.

The American Families Plan would invest hundreds of billions of dollars to make community college free, improve graduation rates, increase the size of Pell Grants, and create a new national service program focused on fighting climate change that includes college scholarships for those who complete a year of service. Democrats hope to pass that bill using budget reconciliation to avoid a GOP Senate filibuster. Meanwhile, a bipartisan infrastructure bill budgets tens of billions of new dollars for energy research, much of which will flow into U.S. research universities.

Politics being what it is, either or both bills could bite the dust or be radically scaled back. But if you want to know which specific colleges and universities are likely to benefit most from whatever largess emerges, you could do worse than scan the top rungs of the Washington Monthly’s college rankings.

As it has since 2005, the Monthly ranks colleges and universities on three broad criteria: the degree to which they recruit and graduate students of modest means (with Pell Grants as the main data point), produce the scholarship and scholars that drive economic growth and human flourishing (with federal research dollars a central measure), and encourage students to be active citizens (with national and community service participation a key variable). That these criteria line up almost precisely with the new funding priorities of Congress and the Biden administration has lent of late an air of triumphalism to Washington Monthly staff Zoom calls.

Our measures are quite different from those used by a certain other magazine that dominates the college rankings game. That other publication, which shall not be named (though in Spanish it’s Noticias de Estados Unidos e Informe Mundial), rewards colleges for their wealth, prestige, and exclusivity. In so doing, it both reflects and aggravates the higher education sector’s increasing tendency to shower resources on students from affluent backgrounds while sending a trickle to those from poor, working-class, and minority families. This exacerbates the racial and class inequality that, as Kevin Carey argues in this issue (“The College Class Crisis”), is tearing the country apart.

The Monthly’s rankings, by contrast, are crafted to push institutions of higher learning to be engines of upward mobility, scientific progress, and democratic participation. They are designed, in other words, to reflect what we think most Americans want from the hundreds of billions of tax dollars that flow annually into those schools.

The very different yardsticks of the two magazines lead to quite different results. For instance, 17 of the top 30 schools on our national universities list are public. In the other magazine’s, 25 of the top 30 national universities are elite private ones. The public universities on our list range from prestigious flagships like University of California, Berkeley, to schools that don’t even make the other publication’s top 50—such as University of Minnesota Twin Cities (20 on ours, 66 on theirs) and Iowa State University (27 on ours, 118 on theirs). 

You’ll find similar discrepancies in the liberal arts category. The College of Saint Benedict, a small women’s college outside Saint Cloud, Minnesota, is 18 on our liberal arts ranking and 96 on theirs. Beloit College in Wisconsin, number 27 on our list, is number 80 on theirs.

On the flip side, several brand-name schools that shine on the other rankings suck on ours. Tulane, Pepperdine, and Baylor, which come in at 41, 49, and 76 respectively on that other outlet’s list of national universities, plumb the depths of ours at 274, 290, and 314 respectively. 

A number of highly prestigious private institutions do make it to the top of our national universities list, due in part to the copious financial aid they provide to the low-income students they admit. That record deserves admiration, but also qualification. For one thing, these schools don’t let in very many low-income students. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, number eight on our list, admits more Pell students annually than do Stanford, MIT, Duke, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins combined. For another, these universities’ generosity is made possible by impossibly large endowments that few other schools can even dream of amassing. Harvard and Yale, which together enroll roughly .15 percent of all college freshmen, own more than 10 percent of all the university endowment assets in America. 

If Congress does increase the size of Pell Grants, it will bring welcome financial relief to some of America’s most important but least appreciated colleges, like California State University, Long Beach. Few national publications write about this public institution. It doesn’t have a big endowment, a prominent sports team, or flashy amenities. But it ranks second on our list of master’s universities, in part by enrolling 15 percent more Pell recipients than the student body’s standardized test scores and the state’s demographics would predict. Also, its Pell students last year graduated at a rate only 5 percent below its non-Pell students, a considerably smaller graduation gap than for Pell students nationwide. The federal government would, wisely, be giving more funds to an institution with a track record of helping move low-income students into the middle class.

The money would also help Elizabeth City State University, a historically Black institution in North Carolina that ranks 13 on our list of bachelor’s colleges. This public college enrolls 10 percent more Pell students than predicted, and they graduate at only a 3 percent lower rate than non-Pell students. Elizabeth City is exactly the kind of institution our rankings are designed to highlight, and we are thrilled that the American Families Plan would give it additional support.

Some better-known colleges, meanwhile, will miss out. Hofstra University, famous for hosting presidential debates and catering to the academically undistinguished children of affluent New Yorkers, enrolls 6 percent fewer Pell students than predicted, and graduates those students at an 11 percent lower rate than its non-Pell students. For students from families earning $75,000 a year or less, the school charges $30,000 in annual tuition, even though it has amassed an endowment of more than $600 million. Elizabeth City State, by contrast, charges $1,900 in tuition and has a $12.3 million endowment. Hofstra’s indifference to lower-income students helps place it at 373 on our list of national universities—18 from the bottom and 213 spots lower than it ranks on that other publication’s list. Hofstra will deserve the low share it gets of whatever extra Pell funding Washington appropriates. The same is true of the billions of dollars in new college scholarships that would come from an expansion of national service. Hofstra also ranks abysmally (328) on our overall service ranking. 

While the spending bills could do a tremendous amount of good, policy makers need to get the details right. Absent tough regulation, for instance, state governments will be tempted to cut their higher education budgets by the amount of extra aid Washington is sending, leaving the intended beneficiaries of that aid no better off and the federal government holding the bag. 

On the other hand, if the money comes with the wrong kind of strings, states and university systems won’t have the flexibility they need to experiment with new models. For instance, it might make sense for them to direct some college completion grants not to colleges but to high schools for programs like dual enrollment. As Anne Kim explains in this issue, dual enrollment has a better track record than AP courses of getting low-income and minority students into and through college (“Advanced Misplacement”).

Another concern is that funds for national service will get squeezed out as negotiations over the American Families Plan proceed. This would be a relief for higher education trade groups, which have never been enthusiastic about the idea. But it would be a betrayal of the mission most of the colleges they represent were founded on, of preparing students for both professional careers and democratic participation. College presidents these days don’t want to be held responsible for the latter mission (or even the former, truth be told). But especially at a moment when our democracy is in the red zone, they need to be. As the Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Value Commission recently concluded (“What Is the Value of a College Degree?”), we should judge institutions of higher learning not just on their students’ economic outcomes but on their “ability to navigate and influence society to promote equity and justice.” 

Expanding national service is also key to making “free college” a reality. As I argue elsewhere in this issue (“Free College if You Serve”), the increased Pell Grants in the bill won’t be enough to allow low- and moderate-income students to earn a bachelor’s degree without taking on debt. Nor will it do much to boost their graduation rates. Add in service scholarships, however, and the full costs of a BA are covered. And research shows that young people who serve in AmeriCorps and then go to college graduate at higher rates than their peers who don’t serve. 

Congress should not just expand national service, but also improve it by removing the senseless federal tax imposed on AmeriCorps scholarships, a burden not placed on GI Bill benefits. It should also write rules that encourage more states to follow the lead of Nebraska, which, as Jamaal Abdul-Alim reports (“Cornhuskers Love AmeriCorps”), offers in-state tuition at its public colleges to any AmeriCorps veteran. 

Washington should consider not just what programs to support, but also what kinds of research to fund. As Elizabeth Austin details (“The Secret Lives of English Majors”), surprising recent data from the University of Texas system shows that Black and white humanities graduates earn roughly the same amount of money both right after graduating and 15 years out. Black and white students in fields like science, technology, engineering, and math, by contrast, have enormous earnings gaps. No one knows for sure why the humanities have relative racial equity. But if the federal government is interested in advancing the economic standing of minorities, it would be wise to invest some money to find out.

Rankings like ours, and those of our competitors, can have a real impact, for good or ill, on how colleges behave. But money from the government is ultimately a way bigger motivator. Here’s hoping that the new spending bills, should they pass, not only reward the colleges that do well on our current rankings, but also persuade the laggards to do better.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.